The roots of American racism 2: The Civil War and after sees racism undermined, then reimposed

In the second part of a four-part series, Bill Crane examines the origins of racism in the United States. Here he looks at how in the Civil War of the 1860s and the Reconstruction which followed it racism was fundamentally weakened and then restored.

Photo: Patrick M, flickr
Photo: Patrick M, flickr

In the US, racism operates in a way that is fundamentally different than in other capitalist countries. This goes back to the very foundations of America, as I described in the first article in this series. Plantation slavery, a social system founded on the free labour of coerced Africans, emerged in response to the British colonies’ need for cheap and reliable labour, and how the production of cotton under slave conditions was enmeshed with emerging world capitalism.

Up till 1861, the US contained two distinct, and fundamentally conflicting, social systems. In the south, the planter aristocracy derived its economic and political power from the immense profits of slave farming on the plantations, while in the north, industrial capitalists ruled over the emerging, and immensely advanced, system of wage labour in industry. To survive, both of these systems had to expand. But it was a zero-sum game: the guaranteed expansion of slavery would seriously weaken  the Northern bourgeoisie, while limiting slavery meant its inevitable end.

The Civil War began two decades of black resistance to structural racism in the US. It also laid the ground for further struggles, especially the class struggles of American workers and the civil rights struggles of other oppressed groups. This was accomplished through the agency of not just blacks, but with help from white social forces and allies in the government, resulting in a fundamental restructuring of American society. Understanding this is crucial to understanding the landscape of racism and resistance in the US today.

The Battle Cry of Freedom

On 2 December 1859, John Brown walked to the gallows. He had been found guilty of a crime he freely admitted to: raiding the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. By capturing it, Brown had hoped to distribute the weapons he obtained in order to start a generalised slave revolt in the south. On his way to his death, he handed a note to his executioners. It read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” He might well have been talking about America today.

Brown’s execution was one of the events that punctuated the increases in tension between north and south that culminated in the Civil War. Earlier, he had been in Bleeding Kansas, where anti-slavery and pro-slavery guerrillas engaged in open battle over whether the territory was to become a slave or free state. Abolitionists in the north openly defied the Fugitive Slave law, which required escaped slaves found in the north to be returned to their masters, thus threatening to extend slave law to all of the United States. They formed the Underground Railroad to facilitate the escape of slaves.

Brown was one of a small group of white abolitionists who thought violence an acceptable means to bring about the end of slavery in the South. The ruling ideology of the north, envisioning a republic based on free property owners, led many to see control of one’s own labour as sacrosanct. Brown and many others understood this in the language of Christian fundamentalism, concluding that southern slavery was a threat to their own liberty.

To survive and ensure their further expansion, the slaveholder class depended on the assistance of the federal government. In order to pass and enforce laws protecting slavery in the south and allowing it to expand into the westward territories, they had to control both Congress and the Presidency. The Constitution, as I wrote in my last article, was a compromise between the southern planters and northern merchants, but one that put the planters’ interests first. This was shown in the structure of the American electoral system, where non-voting slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, giving added weight to the slave states. At the time of the Civil War, 12 out of the 16 Presidents had either been Southern slaveholders themselves, or were their reliable allies. Their party, the Democratic Party, was hegemonic on the national scene from 1800 to 1860.

The 1860 election proved to be the match that ignited this powder keg. The Democrats split between the hardened pro-slavery forces in the South and a more moderate faction in the North. Both were handily defeated by the new Republican Party, which had a platform opposed to the expansion of slavery. Republicans won 40% of the popular vote and a narrow majority of electoral college votes.

The new president, Abraham Lincoln, was far from a hardened abolitionist. His main objective was to save the Union, writing: “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” He was, however, firmly opposed to the expansion of slavery, and this was more than the southern states could accept.

Southern state legislatures began declaring secession from the union, and set up the Confederate government, while Lincoln hoped to persuade them to return. When the newly formed Confederate army fired upon the US military base at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, however, his hand was forced. He called for the raising of armies to return the southern states to the union.

The first two years of war dashed the hopes of either side for a quick victory. While the southern Confederacy won the most battles on the strength of its commanders’ military talent, it remained confined to a defensive posture. Until 1863, the war on the northern, Federal side remained a war to reunify the country rather than to end slavery.

But the slaves of the South did not accept this situation. Whether Lincoln thought that he was an emancipator or not, they recognized him as one. They saw the logic of the Federal war effort as one that would necessarily end in the victory of freedom. As the great black thinker W.E.B. Du Bois would write, slaves launched a “general strike” on the plantations. En masse, they escaped and fled north, joining the Union army as guides, scouts, cooks and so on. Those who remained behind slowed down work or sabotaged their masters in other ways.

After the Federal army fought the Confederates to a bloody standstill at Antietam, Maryland, Lincoln took advantage of the moment to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. It declared the slaves in the states rebelling against the Union “henceforth and forever free.” In one respect this was a piece of propaganda. The Union, having lost more battles than it had won, had no power yet to enforce it. The proclamation also said nothing about the four slave states that had stayed in the Union. Yet this admission by the northern government of the nature of the war gave a boost to the war effort.

In his book For Cause and Comrades, historian James McPherson details the reactions of Union soldiers to this shift. White men who began the war as hardened racists began to see the necessity of exterminating the slave system, recognising black people as human beings. Shortly they would be fighting alongside the coloured regiments that the army would recruit out of escaped slaves and free blacks from the North.

By the fourth year of war, the tide had fully turned in favour of the northern Union. The southern Confederacy was economically backward, having little industry and few of the logistical necessities (railroads especially) necessary to support a war on all fronts. The northern states, on the other hand, were a new and vital powerhouse of industry that was able to last through a long war. Union commander Ulysses S. Grant won a series of battles along the Mississippi river, and cut the Confederacy in two. A blockade of Southern ports effectively halted its importation of food and war materiel from Europe. In 1864, General William T. Sherman’s army marched through Georgia to the sea, driving a stake through the heart of the Confederacy.

As Bruce Levine points out in The Fall of the House of Dixie, Southern society was riven with social divisions. One of these, of course, was between masters and slaves. Slaves for the most part did not accept their oppression, and the war provided them an opportunity to resist and even escape. Another division was that between rich and poor whites. The fortunes of the Confederacy were controlled by a few fabulously wealthy planters. These people held vast amounts of land with huge mansions built on them and owned hundreds of slaves. Many poor whites resented being forced to wage war so the wealthy could keep their slaves. They were a source of pro-Union sentiment throughout the war. It was divisions like these that would dissolve southern resistance under the hammer-blows of Union invasion.

Besieged on all sides, the Confederacy crumbled. Their top commander, Robert E. Lee, signed articles of surrender at Appomattox courthouse in Virginia on 5 April 1865. Lincoln had rushed passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, through Congress as the Confederacy died. By admitting their defeat, the southern states were turning themselves over to a period of military occupation by the federals prior to their readmittance to the Union and accepting the extinction of slavery, on which their economies had been built on. What remained in question was what sort of system would replace it.

Reconstruction, Radicalism and Retreat

 Abraham Lincoln, by the end of the war, had proven himself a supremely capable revolutionary statesman. This politician, who never desired to bring slavery to a violent end, said in his Second Inaugural Address:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

A disheartened supporter of the Confederacy assassinated him a little more than a month after he made this speech. His death added tension to the problem of reintegrating the southern states and replacing slavery with a different social system, already a huge question mark.

The planter class in the south absorbed its defeat by changing as little as it possibly could. Getting themselves elected to office, they quickly passed the Black Codes, a series of laws that forcibly tied ex-slaves as agricultural wage labourers, and limited their right to the vote. But the post-Lincoln Congress was dominated by the Radical faction of the Republican Party. They were determined to make the planter class suffer for its rebellion, and to shine the light of the federal government on the freedmen.

Federal occupation and the intransigence of the freedmen quickly put paid to the Black Codes. Blacks turned out in their masses to elect the Republican party to national and state office. There were, for a time, black sheriffs and mayors across the cities of the South, and black men sat in the state legislatures as well as both houses of Congress. This was one sign of the general postwar effervescence of black political and cultural life. As Eric Foner wrote, this period would see the first great movement of black literature, black spirituality and indeed “black power.”

This newly found power was based on economic independence that the ex-slaves cherished. While most ex-slaves would have preferred to set themselves up as free farmers like the vast majority of southern whites not of the planter class, they also found independence and opportunity in the profession of “sharecropping”. Northern victory had led to most freedmen gaining a patch of land on which they could subsistence farm. Sharecropping meant that they worked for their former masters in exchange for a share of the crop, reserving the right to market their share independently and to determine their own hours and pace of work.

The planters, so used to having the same people as slaves, could not accept this situation. They turned to violence in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, which was essentially the terrorist wing of the Democratic Party, to win back domination of the South. At the same time the first tendrils of modern capitalism extended their way into the region. Merchants began to offer freedmen extortionate loans against their portion of the crop. Many freedmen were reduced in this manner to a state of wage labour mediated through debt. For people who had just become free, to be forced to pick cotton again was the worst of all fates.

Black economic and political independence could remain as long as the federal army was there to enforce it. But the US state was backed by an industrial capitalist class that, although it had a necessary stake in the extinction of slavery, felt no responsibility to the freedmen. The Republican Party finally betrayed the freedmen in 1876, when victory in the contested presidential election was handed to its candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the southern states.

The planters quickly took advantage. Appealing to the racial solidarity of many poor whites, they passed laws enforcing segregation of public places and the South’s new public schools, enshrining black inferiority once again in the law. Black political power was eliminated through a combination of terror and legislation that restricted their access to the ballot box through absurd tests and taxes. While they were no longer slaves, most blacks would have been right to see this as three steps forward, two steps back.

The Significance of the Civil War

The Civil War and Reconstruction brought massive changes to American society. In the first place, the end of slavery had a profound impact on economic life. It destroyed the economic power of a class that had stood in the way of the capitalist development of the South, and indeed of the whole country. The planters’ political power was also smashed at the national level. The Republican Party, with its roots in Northern business, remained hegemonic for seventy years after the Civil War. It was not until the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 that another US president would come from the South.

The Civil War had the effect of uniting the country under the hegemony of Northern industrial capital, paving the way for the emergence of the United States as an imperialist power. Because of this it is quite correct to describe it in Marxist terms as a bourgeois revolution, as Neil Davidson has done.

But the end of slavery did not mean the end of racism. In volume one of Capital, Marx had written that the war signalled the emergence of a united American labour movement, because “labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin while in the black skin it is branded.” He meant by this that a having a significant portion of the labouring population in a condition of bondage, seen as sub-human, disfigured the interests of the entire working class, black and white. This was the case even in the North, where free blacks before and even during the war were subjected to segregation, prohibited from living in some states, and not infrequently were the victims of racist mob violence.

The first seeds of cross-class revolutionary unity laid during the war would take many years before blossoming forth. Again, this was true in both the South and the North. Southern planters found in racism the ready-made ideological tool they needed to reassert their power. Northern bosses also found in anti-black hysteria a useful weapon against class solidarity that would plague the labour movement there.

The beginnings of the current system of racism in America, which is enforced ruthlessly through the agency of state terror, can be glimpsed in the post-Reconstruction period. The law was employed by the revived planter class to punish blacks for “vagrancy.” Many ended up in jail and viciously exploited in the chain gangs. Douglas Blackmon called this “slavery by a different name.” Outside of prison blacks were ruthlessly oppressed, used as a cheap labour force on the farms of the south and denied the most meagre of social and political rights.

It was the vast economic changes that took place in the South from the end of the nineteenth century that would bring blacks again into rebellion against the racist system almost a century after the end of slavery. This is the subject of the next instalment.


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